Thursday, September 1, 2016

RMS Lancastria

by Kate Dunn

I've always been terrified of boats.  One of my earliest memories goes all the way back to when I was two or three – still young enough to be having major tantrums – standing on the banks of the River Thames at Windsor throwing a hissy fit because I thought joining my family on a pleasure cruise would mean certain death.  It's a fear I have to this day, to a certain extent: the sight of a giant prow looming above me still brings me out in a cold sweat.

RMS Lancastria (center) at Funchal, Madeira, c. 1930.

Perhaps this fear brings with it a certain morbid fascination, but certainly when I was busy researching the fallout from the evacuation of Dunkirk for a project that I was then working on, mention of a ship called the RMS Lancastria caught my eye.  She had been a Cunard liner before the war, ferrying well-heeled holidaymakers to the Bahamas and in her day must have been the last word in luxury.  After war broke out she was requisitioned and following the Allies' disastrous campaign in Northern France in the early phase of the conflict she was pressed into service as a troop ship to recover the stragglers who failed to make it as far as the coast for what the government euphemistically described as "re-embarkation".  Several thousand of these men were instructed to retreat westwards towards Brittany and eventually ended up at St Nazaire, where the Lancastria and her sister ship the Oronsay were waiting to bring them home as part of Operation Aerial.

St Nazaire: the HMT Lancastria Memorial on the left 

Most of the general public are familiar with the sinking of the Titanic in which fifteen hundred and seventeen men and women were drowned, and some have heard of the Lusitania which sank with the loss of eleven hundred and ninety two souls, but until recently few people have known about the fate of the Lancastria. She and the Oronsay were too large to enter the port at St Nazaire and remained moored out in the estuary while a couple of destroyers ferried the waiting troops out to them.  It is not known how many thankful passengers finally boarded the Lancastria in this way, but estimates put the number at above six thousand.

Overcrowding was certainly a problem on a ship built to hold thirteen hundred, but the captain was faced with a far greater one: there were rumours of U boats circling out at sea and he made the fateful decision to wait for an escort before he set sail.  They came under attack while they were waiting and a bomb was dropped on the Oronsay, knocking out her bridge.  The nervous refugees on her sister ship must have thanked their lucky stars that they were on board the Lancastria.  Shortly after this six German aircraft came flying out of the sun.  Most of them dropped their payload on the docks, but one of them had his sights set on the Lancastria, which was struck by four bombs, started listing badly and sank within twenty minutes.

Nobody knows how many people died on that sunny afternoon on the 17th of June 1940 but lower estimates put the number at around four thousand – more than double the number of casualties on the better known Titanic.

Lancastria sinking off Saint-Nazaire, France, 17 June 1940.

Why do relatively few people know about what was the worst maritime disaster in British history?  If it doesn't have the national resonance that the Titanic and the Lusitania share, it is because the sinking took place the very same day that Marshal Petain signed an armistice with Hitler, such a catastrophic set back in the war that Churchill felt the British public and should be spared further bad news and slapped a D notice on the Lancastria, which meant that anybody mentioning it would be prosecuted.  A terrible pall of silence descended and the stories of the men who drowned and those who survived remained untold.

Gradually, as the decades passed, details did slip out.  There are some firsthand accounts held by the Imperial War Museum which take your breath away: the lines on a lifeboat containing women and children jammed and had to be cut, sending the craft plummeting vertically into the sea; the cork life jackets which were issued were so rigid that men jumping from the sinking vessel had their necks broken as they hit the water and the life rafts thrown from the ship dealt knockout blows to those  below.  The boat's fuel tanks were ruptured so people were thrashing about in a thick slick of oil and as they struggled the German planes banked round and started firing on them.  Witnesses spoke of seeing hundreds of tiny dead fish floating around them as a result of this.

A typical cork jacket from 1887

As early as 1955 the Lancastria Survivors Association was set up to support and commemorate those who had come through this horrendous ordeal and an organisation called the HMT Lancastria Association still exists today.  Author Jonathan Fenby has also written a comprehensive account of the tragedy, "The Sinking of the Lancastria".  In 2015 after a campaign run by the military and a number of celebrities including actress Joanna Lumley and best-selling author Louis de Bernieres, the government did finally recognize the disaster when George Osborne, standing in for the prime minister, referred to it in parliament, but mention the Lancastria to the man or woman in the street today and they will probably shrug and say they've never heard of it.

Perhaps because of my morbid fear of boats, but actually, I think it was more from a sense of injustice, I became deeply interested in this mighty ship.  The soldiers who were rescued from the beaches at Dunkirk were treated as heroes and given campaign medals, but the fate of the those who went down with the Lancastria was never acknowledged in that way.  So I did the only thing I could: I picked up my pen and started to write…

[all above images are in the Public Domain and sourced from]

Kate Dunn comes from a long line of writers and actors: her grandfather, Hugh Williams, was a celebrated actor and playwright and her uncles are the actor Simon Williams and the poet Hugo Williams. Kate has performed in repertory and in the West End and appeared in television productions including My Brother Jonathon and The Bill. The publication of her first novel Rebecca's Children was followed by Always and Always, the Wartime Letters of Hugh and Margaret Williams, and in October 1998 Exit Through the Fireplace - The Great Days of Rep and the sequel to this, Do Not Adjust Your Set – The Early Days of Live Television, in 2003. Kate now broadcasts on Radios Two, Three and Four and is a regular contributor to Front Row. She teaches creative writing at Bristol University.
The Line Between Us draws on firsthand reports of the Lancastria tragedy to craft a story framed by a gripping evocation of a major disaster that remains relatively unknown even to this day. 

1 comment:

  1. A small correction; the Oronsay and Lancastria were not sister ships (not boats)The Oronsay belonged to the Orient Steam Navigation Co whilst the Lancastria was as you stated a Cunard liner, too the Oronsay had two funnels to the Lancastria's one.
    The Oransay was sunk too by the Germans in 1942, but by torpedoes and with the loss of just 6 lives as against the actual unknown from the Lancastria.


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